Cold and Cough Medication: Examples of Abuse and Overdose

a person pours a dose of medicine wich could start the cycle of cough syrup abuse

Cough and cold medicines, both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription, are being abused more often than ever. They are popular among young adults, who use them as an alternative, or in combination with street drugs or alcohol. Many of these medications can cause hallucinations or feelings of euphoria. Some people who abuse cough and cold medicines may take them in huge doses, which can cause serious health problems or even death.

If you or a loved one struggles with cough syrup abuse, breaking the cycle of addiction early is critical for a successful recovery. At Northpoint Seattle, our personalized substance abuse treatment plans help build the recovery skills to succeed in sobriety.

Why Do People Abuse Cough Syrup?

Cough syrup is easy to obtain and relatively inexpensive. It is also often seen as a “safe” drug since it is legal. Many cough and cold medicines contain dextromethorphan (DXM), which can lead to a desirable high.

Popular cough medicines containing DXM include:

  • Robitussin
  • Triaminic
  • Alka-Seltzer Plus cold medicine
  • Vicks NyQuil
  • Coricidin

Some prescription cough syrups contain codeine, which is a mild opioid. Despite being mild, codeine is still highly addictive and especially popular in hip hop music, where it is referred to as “syrup.”

DXM and codeine can both cause highs that drive people who abuse them to continue seeking higher doses as their tolerance grows.

Signs of Cough Syrup Abuse

Abusing cough syrup is the first step in the addiction cycle. While not all substance abuse is an addiction, a person can easily slip into a vicious cycle. People who begin abusing cough syrup are more at-risk of abusing other substances and struggling with addiction.

Look for the signs of cough syrup abuse, including:

  • Sudden changes in mood or behavior
  • Sloppy appearance
  • Lying or being secretive
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Missing school or work
  • Poor performance in school or work
  • Increased irritability

Recognizing the signs of cough syrup abuse can help save lives. As the cycle of abuse continues, higher doses are often sought to get high, which can easily result in an overdose.

Dangerous Doses of Cough Syrup

People who abuse cough syrup may take far higher doses than recommended. This can lead to dangerous side effects, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Dilated pupils
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Dizziness
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Coma

Cough syrup can be easy to overdose on, especially for people with high tolerances. Overdosing on cough syrup is a medical emergency and requires immediate assistance. The number of people who overdose on cough syrup is on the rise, as is the number of fatalities. In 2015, there were 1,379 deaths from DXM overdoses in the United States.

Recognizing a Cough Syrup Overdose

If you suspect that someone has overdosed on cough syrup, it is crucial to seek medical help right away. Symptoms of a DXM overdose include:

  • Agitation
  • Confusion
  • Delirium
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Muscle rigidity
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Seizures
  • Slurred speech

Medical professionals can treat a cough syrup overdose with activated charcoal, which can absorb the DXM and reduce its toxicity. If necessary, they may also administer fluids or other medications to stabilize the person’s heart rate and blood pressure.

Cough Syrup Detoxification

Once a person stops taking cough syrup, they may experience withdrawal symptoms. These can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Sweating
  • Tremors

Cough syrup withdrawal is usually not life-threatening, but it can be uncomfortable. Because of this, it is often best to detox under medical supervision, which will ensure any complications can be quickly addressed.

Cough Syrup Rehabilitation at Northpoint Seattle

After detox, it is essential to begin working on underlying issues that may have contributed to cough syrup abuse. At Northpoint Seattle, our individualized treatment plans address each client’s unique needs. We offer a variety of therapeutic approaches, including:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Dialectical behavior therapy
  • Motivational interviewing
  • Family therapy
  • Trauma-informed care

Your success in sobriety is our goal. We work with you to develop a flexible therapy schedule that helps maintain normalcy while still building the skills needed to recover. Get the support you need; call us today at 888.483.6031.